BRUSSELS When Brussels police caught Salah Abdeslam, suspected sole survivor of November’s suicide assault on Paris, they knew they were in a race against time to stop a new Islamic State attack.
It was Friday afternoon, March 18, and one of Prime Minister Charles Michel's cabinet ministers tweeted "We got him!" after Europe’s most wanted man was seized at a house in the capital's Molenbeek neighbourhood.
But Michel was worried, according to a government official who was present as the premier raced to his crisis command centre from a European summit up the road.
"Our first thought was that ... this will set off a ferocious response," said the senior aide. Speaking on condition he not be named, he told Reuters security forces had orders to increase vigilance but lacked intelligence to justify a citywide lockdown such as Michel imposed after the Paris attacks.
Yet their fears were well founded. The suicide bombings of Brussels airport and a metro train that killed 28 bystanders laid bare the inability of the Belgian authorities to counter Islamic State militants, no matter how high the level of alert.
Missed connections, leads not followed and suspects let slip have exposed deficiencies in police and intelligence services, but also how Europe's home-grown, Syrian-trained Islamist cells can react with deadly speed to events such as Abdeslam's arrest.
"It was a race against time," said Vincent Gilles, head of Belgium's main police trade union SLFP. But with accomplices fearful investigators were closing in, and the intelligence service understaffed -- by several estimates by about half the norm for other rich European states -- it was a race the authorities could not win.
"What happened was almost inevitable," said Gilles.
Some local media say investigators speculate that Abdeslam had planned to machinegun crowds over this Easter weekend as suicide bombers struck, just as in Paris. Fearful Abdeslam might talk or otherwise give them away, the bombers moved up the date.
YEAR ON ALERT
Belgium is, for its size, the biggest European supplier of foreign fighters in Syria. Islamic State has appealed to an alienated generation descended from mostly Moroccan immigrants of the 1960s. Many have made common cause with French militants.
Belgian authorities stepped up their searches for activists of these cells since January 2015. That month, days after the bloodshed at Paris magazine Charlie Hebdo, Belgian police foiled a plot in the town of Verviers that revealed an Islamic State campaign to send some of the 300 or more young Belgians who have fought in Syria back to Europe to strike on their native soil.
In Verviers, police killed two men who returned from Syria with one Abdelhamid Abaaoud. Killed in a shootout in Paris days after the attacks there, he emerged as "the spider in the web", in the words of a Belgian minister, of an extensive network.
Yet though Belgian authorities questioned numerous contacts of Abaaoud, notably from his old Molenbeek neighbourhood, the trail went cold. Among those interrogated and released were Salah Abdeslam and his brother Brahim, who had been expelled by Turkey on suspicion of trying to go and fight in Syria.
In the first half of 2015, Belgian courts convicted dozens of radical preachers and their followers for recruiting for Syria. But new cells were forming among men not overtly pious.
So last summer, the Abdeslams, petty drug dealers who ran a Molenbeek bar and showed no outward sign of radical faith, were free to put together what Salah has since told interrogators was a logistical plan to prepare for the attacks on Paris.
Salah drove across Europe more than once and appears to have transported quantities of guns and explosives as well as people.
So it was with shock, after 130 people died on a Friday evening in the French capital and trails led back to Brussels, that Michel's government realised it had an urgent problem.
Acting on a tip from a source which had proved its worth at Verviers, Michel locked down transport and public spaces for days as he was near "100 percent certain" of the threat.
At the centre of those fears was Salah Abdeslam, whose brother had just blown himself up at a Paris cafe and who had slipped back across the Belgian border ahead of a French dragnet. The morning after Paris, he went to ground in Brussels.
NEW RESOURCES, TOO LATE
Michel immediately pledged cash and legal reforms to beef up a security system that was understaffed and overworked.
An intelligence service of about 700 staff for a country of 11 million struggled to cope, as did a police force that is about 20 percent below full strength.
Police and security services have also struggled with a lack of communication and coordination across a multiplicity of departments that cross Belgium's Dutch-French language divide and a complex system of devolved power that curbs federal rule.
Two of Tuesday's three suicide bombers -- Najim Laachraoui and Khalid El Bakraoui -- were on counter-terrorism watchlists. The former was a suspected bombmaker for the Paris attacks; the latter rented a safe house for the Paris cell and the flat where police picked up Abdeslam's trail three days before his capture.
Bakraoui's brother Brahim, was a convicted armed robber in breach of his parole who was expelled last July from Turkey. Ankara warned Belgium he had been caught trying to reach Syria.
In December, police in the Flemish town of Mechelen had a tip about a family sheltering Abdeslam. The tip included the address where he was eventually apprehended. But officials acknowledge the tip was never passed on to Brussels colleagues.
The revelation has led to criticism -- strongly denied -- that Mechelen's town hall might prefer to suppress a tip to avoid irritating local Muslims, a key electoral constituency.
In their four-month search for Abdeslam, police pulled in dozens of people, holding 10 by last month including two who drove the suspect from Paris through three French police checks.
Dozens of homes were raided to no avail. Yet police reject suggestions it was pure chance that led them to a house in the Brussels borough of Forest on March 15. Four officers were wounded in a shootout with those inside before one gunman was killed. His identity revealed a man who travelled last summer with Abdeslam and wired money to a cousin of Abaaoud in Paris.
The Forest apartment, rented under a false name by Khalid El Bakraoui, the Brussels metro bomber, also delivered up a fresh fingerprint belonging to Salah Abdeslam. It showed he was still in the city and another tip-off that let police home in on a cellphone he was using led them to him three days later.
THREE DAYS OF FEAR
Over the three and half days following that arrest, while a wounded Abdeslam first cooperated and then refused to answer questions, the government considered locking down Brussels just as it had done after the Paris November attacks. But the government decided against it because they had no clear clues that an attack was in the offing, said the government official.
When the bombers struck at the morning rush hour on Tuesday, the authorities moved fast, though it faces questions about the hour delay in shutting the metro that cost a dozen or so lives.
Within three hours, the taxi driver who took the suicide bombers to the airport had called police and already led them back to the apartment where he had picked them up. That produced a trove of evidence, including chemicals and another bomb.
One report said the bombers left it behind after a confused taxi dispatcher sent a smaller cab than they ordered. It also produced a witness who, investigators say, has since identified a third man seen on airport cameras with the two bombers.
Police have been rolling up contacts and acquaintances of those identified, including another suspected plotter in Paris.
Michel’s government is also cracking down on fake documents which seem to have allowed the likes of Laachraoui and Abaaoud, to slip back across Europe from Islamic State bastions in Syria.
The government has sought new legal powers over, and in cooperation with, Internet and telecoms firms to track suspects.
But officials caution that it could take years to fill the gaps in the security structures of a country that is proud to host both the European Union and NATO. The government official acknowledged that its measures can't work "overnight".
So it was with a note of resignation that Belgium's leaders reacted to the worst bloodshed in their country since World War Two: Michel declared simply: "What we feared, has happened."
(Additional reporting by Ingrid Melander; Editing by Alessandra Galloni)
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Published Date: Mar 28, 2016 00:30 AM | Updated Date: Mar 28, 2016 00:30 AM